Around this time of year, many people will be pulling out Grandma’s best silverware for their parties and family gatherings. Although silver is a popular family heirloom, often passed down through generations, it can be difficult to know how to properly care for it. However, with a little knowledge of the basics, you can enjoy your antique silverware for years to come.
How can you tell if your silver is solid sterling or plated? The easiest way is to look for a stamp or hallmark, usually on the bottom or reverse side of a piece. The type of sterling mark will depend on where the piece was produced. American sterling will usually be stamped “STERLING”, while British sterling will be stamped with the lion passant. This video is a great quick guide to interpreting British silver hallmarks. Other marks indicative of sterling silver are “925” or “925/1000”. By definition, sterling silver must be at least 92.5% pure silver.
If you are unable to interpret the marks on your piece, this website is one of the best online resources for silver hallmark identification. They also have a section on identifying flatware patterns. This is important if a piece from your set ever goes missing or gets damaged and you need to replace it.
This elaborate antique serving spoon features Amsterdam inspired motifs and a working windmill built into the handle.
After identifying whether your silver is solid or plated, you are ready to go about cleaning and polishing. The most important thing to remember is that less is more when cleaning silver. Excessive use of cleaners or abrasives can cause discoloration or scratches, and in the case of plated pieces, wear away the silver entirely. Therefore, you should start minimally (such as with a simple polishing cloth) and work your way up to more serious methods (pastes, foams, and other polishing cleansers) if absolutely necessary. Be sure to stay away from any polishing substances that contain ammonia, as this chemical is quite harsh on soft metals like silver. Also keep in mind that some patina is desirable on antique pieces, especially when it provides a contrast to ornate patterns and allows them to stand out. Not only will a light touch with polishing prevent you from rubbing out any hallmarks or design details, it will prevent you from “over polishing” and ruining that wonderful antique look.
If and when your silver comes into contact with food, it should be washed soon after use. Certain foods, such as eggs, acidic fruits, garlic, or salts, can tarnish silver upon contact. Simply clean with warm water and soap, without soaking the piece. Washing silver in a dishwasher is not recommended. Dry thoroughly after cleaning, as air drying can lead to spotting. The worst enemy of silver is air and humidity, so keep that in mind when storing your pieces. Cloth bags are a great option for storing silver to avoid scratches and minimize contact with the air. You can find storage bags and cloths specially designed to prevent silver from tarnishing. Make sure you are not wrapping pieces in newspaper or rubber bands, as these items contain chemicals that could permanently discolor your silver. You should avoid storing your silver in basements or attics.
Thanks to a myriad of resources online, as well as in books, it isn’t too difficult to determine the uniqueness of a particular piece. Your sterling silver, in addition to the value of the metal, may have value in craftsmanship or rarity. Antique sterling silver, though beautiful, can be high maintenance for some owners. If you are looking for a formal appraisal on your silver for insurance purposes, or if you are looking to sell your pieces, Market Square Jewelers is your one stop shop. Come into any of our locations, where we will tell you the value of your silver at no cost. No appointment is necessary, and we will also buy your sterling silver, should you choose to sell. Looking to start your very own silver collection? Shop a selection of our silver dining pieces here.